The New-York Historical Society’s fascinating Summer of Magic continues with Abracadabra to Alchemy by auction specialist and art history lecturer Gabriella Corey. “The magic we’ll be looking at is not the magic we associate with great pronouncements or entertainment.” In fact, the way our lecturer uses the term “magic” is different than common popular definitions.
We start in the Wonderwerk Cave, Kuruman Hills, South Africa (Wonderwerk means “miracle” in Afrikaans) and Lascaux Caves in Montignac, France, both archeological sites. Middle and later Stone Age art depicts successful hunting. “The minute man prioritized survival, magic began….” Sympathetic rituals were built around preparation, luck, skill and outcome. It’s conjectured that art representing positive results may even have preceded a hunt as a way to encourage the fates.
Greek, Roman, and Egyptian practices/beliefs seem to overlap. In Egypt, magic was mostly associated with the grave. “Inscriptions and coffins gave us a glimpse into the afterlife, sometimes leaving instructions for the dead.” Restrictions dictated not only who created spells but every aspect of the practice. Because literacy was reserved to the rich and powerful, reading these aloud was sometimes sufficient. Curses were also frequent and feared. The Egyptian Book of The Dead was more personalized than is thought by contemporary culture. What we read are the standardized sections.
Because Egyptian hieroglyphics were so difficult to translate, the first Grimoires, or books of spells, were often in Greek or Roman/Italian. The recently decoded Voynich Grimoire was used for women’s reproductive health. It had biological, herbal, and alchemical sections.
Amulets were used in all three early cultures, especially for protection. Many of these were worn as contact with flesh was thought to ignite powers. Early wands were ceremonially utilized to scare away evil. An example might be waving one over a pregnant woman.
Early Roman figure Pliny the Elder (scholar who wrote on subjects including science and history) was skeptical about the efficacy of magic. Practicing might mean execution. Still, charioteers paid for spells against their competitors and victories attributed to magic cheating. Binding charms were used to get sex, money, and power. In Rome, incantation was mainly used for protection.
Alchemy is often defined as “the search for a quantifiable spiritual essence= the soul…” As gold was the most valuable substance on earth, its manifestation and transmutation were believed to be the probable source of eternal life. “In The Book of Revelations, everyone was bedecked in gold.” The crossover between greed and spiritualism is familiar. Pope John XXII apparently outlawed the practice less because man was usurping the power of God than because the gold market grew too inflated.
Corey’s talk was knowledgeable, but extremely dense and rather too academic for lay people. Intriguing questions were nonetheless raised encouraging attendees to do a bit of further research into the earliest forms of what we now call Magic.
All quotes are Gabriella Corey
Gabriella Corey photo courtesy of the speaker
The Summer of Magic series is a wonderful way for laypeople to explore the subject in an entertaining fashion.
For Summer of Magic events at The New-York Historical Society click here.
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